Thin Places

Trail-guide for the Soul: The Walk – Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail by Randy Motz & Georgia Harris

The melody lifted and soared as if born of, and upon, the wind itself.  Song formed from breath, shaped and made smooth and comely by the texture and soul of the cedar love-flute it flowed  through. I’ve been enamored with the first-nations love-flute from the moment I first heard it. This particular day we sat in the midst of a strange community of hikers pausing briefly on their pilgrimage to Katahdin to celebrate and rest. To our left along the grassy bank was a young  couple, he with long hair tied back, she with dreadlocks, in matching red raincoats. My eyes were drawn to them.  Something about their gentleness with each other, their smiles, their quiet laughter stilled and quieted my soul. To my right, just below the embankment was an average 50-ish man in jeans, t-shirt and round glasses sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, posture perfect.  Directly ahead of me was another gray-haired, bespectacled 60-ish man sporting a ball-cap embroidered on the back with the name “Strider.”  One of my favorite characters in all of literature.  Was that his trail name? 

The place was Damascus, Va.  The event was Trail Days 2011 and we were all, amid the distractions that are part and parcel of a street festival like this, basking in the music of Wind-talker, Randy Motz.  For an hour or so, his flute-song created a small sacred space for us. Few words were spoken but it was clear, to me at least, that Wind-Talker and I had a mutual Friend…Maker, Graybeard likes to call him. Earlier, as Wind-talker was setting up his gear we shared a little conversation.  To be fair, I did most of the talking. Randy and his wife Georgia (“Mom” as she’s known on the trail) had done a thru-hike several years prior and in the process of asking him about his hike, I found myself confessing my own desperate longing to do the same.  Familiar phrases fell naturally from my lips as I described this haunting, “The woods have become my sanctuary, the AT my obsession.”  He spoke little, nodded much and told me I might enjoy the book he and his wife had written:  The Walk: Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail.  Afterwards I took him up on his suggestion and he generously signed the copy I hold now in my hands. 

I spend most of my days in sweltering heat, covered in sawdust, surrounded by screaming woodworking equipment.  Each morning before starting my day I show up a little early, find a spot to sit down behind the building and as John Muir puts it let  “…nature’s peace… flow into [me] as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into [me], and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  Occasionally I’ll read scripture or some other book.  The Walk became that book for a while.

I began The Walk with high expectations.  I longed to hear echoed in these pages that same melody that had poured forth from Wind-talkers flute.  That’s not what I heard…at least at first. What I was struck by was the Motz’s command of the written word. Their writing style clear and concise, their vocabulary expansive but unpretentious, there was no confusion as to what they were trying to say.  They said it well. I wondered though, as I read, if I had made assumptions about Randy based on our short conversation, that were incorrect.

You see, I’m in a different place than many people who might read this post. For the past several years I’ve been discovering what it means to abide, to sink deeper into my Abba’s Love for me, outside the walls of the institutional church. Because of my distance from the Institution, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to and agitated by what I perceive to be religion. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I often get it wrong. If I’m not mistaken, Randy and Georgia are, at present, part of an institutional community of believers.  Having said that, they strike me as a couple able to walk in complete freedom untainted by their affiliation with the System.  Love, hope, encouragement and freedom are found in the pages of The Walk.  I found myself reading with a pen in one hand and my journal in the other, scribbling down the inspirational and thought-provoking quotes that headed each chapter and are peppered throughout.  The Walk is liberally seasoned as well with native wisdom from the likes of Lakota/ Sioux Richard Twiss and other native sages. Scripture quotations are taken from Eugene Petersen’s The Message which lends to it’s conversational feel.  These along with the excerpts from their AT journal serve to transport the reader, vicariously, right to the Trail with it’s sounds, smells, tastes, beauty and pain.

Without doubt my two favorite chapters are 5 and 6.  The title of chapter 5, “Praise and Worship” , has mental associations for me of instruments, sound systems and compulsory singing and hand-raising.  There’s nothing of the sort here.  Randy and Georgia manage to capture the beauty and wonder of encountering God in what many would think an unlikely place, the wilderness.  They express with eloquence and emotion, the soul-gasp that seizes ones heart when you unwittingly stumble upon a thin-place in the midst of an old forest, or the undeniable sense of Presence when the rhododendron choked woods open to a breathtaking vista. There’s no religion here…only spontaneous gratitude…eucharisteo , no matter your spiritual leanings. Chapter 6 relates their journey into simplicity. Winnowing down your world to what you can carry on your back is wonderful practice for doing the same in your non-thru-hike life as well as your spiritual life. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process. Realizing how our possessions can possess us and taking steps to change that may be one of the most important things we can do to reduce the clutter, noise and distraction that impede our walk with God. Randy and Georgia not only give practical wisdom on how to take those first steps but are open and transparent with the naked truth of how they struggle with this themselves.
Honestly, with chapter headings such as “Family and Community”, “Praise and Worship”, “Pride and Humility” and “Service” something in my anti-establishment gut churns and braces to be guilted with a reminder of  duty and obligation and how I should just try harder. Probably just the last tendrils of religion still clinging to my soul.  Or maybe these headings are sheep in wolves clothing. Familiar phrases that evoke old pharisaical emotions but hidden inside them is the life-giving message of grace, hope and love.  Hope I didn’t just give away your secret, Wind-talker and Mom. Oops.

The Launch of a Dream: Life, Love, Mystics, Adventure and the Road Less Traveled in a podcast?

  

 

 

“A journey of 2,000 miles begins with an episode of insanity.”
I read this pithy proverb somewhere recently and whole-heartedly concur. There are few things I want more in life right now than to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, for all my love of spontaneity, I’m also a realist. It’s a mortgage that’s keeping me from that dream and it truly would require an episode of insanity to ignore that fact. I can’t deny, however, that it’s perfectionism keeping me from a dream of another kind.
Perfectionism is a terrible, terrible trait. I battle it daily. It’s latest manifestation is in my “failure to launch.” No, I left home years ago. Another kind of launch. A year or so ago a seed of an idea formed, gestated and grew until I knew had to do something about it. The idea was for a pod-cast; a sort of audio journal that would invite others along as I explored this path that has lead me beyond the walls of the institutional church and into the wilderness…literally…into the woods.As I dreamed, I discovered fellow travelers on my journey. Topping a long list are Thoreau, Muir and Annie Dillard. Their writing served to encourage me along the way. I’ve also discovered a company of others who are even now walking the same trail. Maybe you’re one of those.
I quickly found that creating a pod-cast was not nearly so simple as I’d imagined. I was constantly realizing that I needed to teach myself to use yet another piece of software and never quite content with the end product. Even now I’m dissatisfied with my Word-press site and struggle to make even minor changes. I tell you this as a sort of disclaimer. If I continue to tweek until it’s “perfect” it’ll never launch.
I often hear seasoned AT thru-hikers give aspiring thru-hikers a piece of advice: Don’t put your hike off until you’re ready…or you’ll never go. Just go for it. Nothing wrong with preparation but the little things you haven’t worked out will work themselves out along the way. Good advice. Here’s my episode of insanity! I’m going for it! I invite you into my mess, flaws and all, and hope you’ll enjoy the journey as this thing grows and evolves. It is most certainly not yet what I hope it will become but I think it’ll be fun to watch the transformation. Disclaimer out of the way, who should subscribe (It’s free, by the way!) to All Who Wander?
You!

If:

– You have a hankering for adventure

– You hike, backpack or want to

– You enjoy discussing the finer points of noodles vs. trail-bars

– You enjoy (or have at least heard of) Thoreau, Muir, or Annie Dillard

– You find something dark and squishy in your sleeping bag and test it to see if it is edible. (Thanks to http://outontheat.blogspot.com for this one!)

– You’re disillusioned with the institutional church

– You’ve discovered what appears to be bear poop containing small

bells and smelling of pepper and wonder if you should be concerned.

– You have a long commute.

– You stand in long lines

– You enjoy making fun of my goofy, white-trash southern accent

– You want to help a 44 year old man leave his day-job and thru-hike the 2, 175 mile Appalachian Trail!*

 

 

*Most websites feature ads. On our site you’ll find “ads” that are actually affiliate links. We make a little money every time you link to one of our hand-picked affiliates such as Amazon, REI, or Mountain Life. We make even more if you buy something from them! We chose these because we love, trust and buy from them regularly ourselves.

 

 

What’ll it be like?

My hope is that the pod-cast will become a mixed bag of “audio-hike” field recordings, discussions about gear, conversations with artists, writers, musicians and everyday people like you and I who are discovering what it is to walk with God outside the box of institutional religion…exploring the “thin places”, dreaming of what could be, and talking about people, books, films and music that have helped us along this path.

What can I do?

Listen. Enjoy. Tell someone. Give us a review in the I-Tunes store. Patronize our affiliates. Post a link to an All Who Wander pod-cast or blog by clicking on the facebook button at the bottom of each post. Become a fan of All Who Wander on facebook. Join the conversation by posting a comment at www.allwhowander.us. Let us know what you think or what you might find helpful. Tell us if you know of someone who’d make an interesting guest on the show. (Maybe that’s you!) We really, really look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.                                        -Jeremiah 6:16.
 
“Not all those who wander are lost.”                                                                  -JRR Tolkien
 
 
 
 

 

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 6




Day 6 (June 30)

Only 6 miles left of our adventure. With an odd mixture of sadness and exhilaration we broke camp and joined the families of cyclists moving down the trail to Damascus. Dana had switched to flip-flops by this point, which were rubbing brand new blisters in brand new places but she trudged along like a champ. We took our time, stopping occasionally to play in creeks, set up cairns and take pictures. Around 10:00am the white blazes led us out of the woods, onto US 58 and into the city limits. At this lower elevation, we found the flora ablaze in color: Snow white blooms, rimmed in threads of red trim, vivid pink and deep orange flowers and yellow golden-rod looking plants that stood nearly 4 feet high. Best of all? Blackberries. Growing wild by the side of the road were patches of juicy, ripe blackberries. With just a little effort we were able to find handfuls of ripened, delicious blackberries which we ate right off of the vine, er…bush. Trail magic of the highest order!
Walking into Damascus felt fantastic. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine this thrill as part of a thru-hike. I got lost for a moment as I was swept up into my daydream. I was stirred from my reverie by shouts of “We made it!” We saw the first “Welcome to Damascus” sign. Fred collapsed in the grass and we took turns recording the moment, photographically, for posterity. We laughed and played our way into town, feeling, looking, and I’m sure, smelling like real hikers. We had an early lunch at a local restaurant, stuffing ourselves on giant cheeseburgers (No wonder I put on weight when I’m hiking, huh?), french-fries and ice cream for desert. We donned our packs, once again, and savored the remainder of our walk to Mt. Rogers Outfitters. I brought in my water filter and the owner happily repaired it free of charge while I watched. Good as new. More trail magic. We hesitantly loaded our packs into the van and navigated twisting, turning mountain roads to find our way to the cabin where we’d enjoy several days of lazy, restful, recuperation. Like our walk in the woods these blissful, laughter-filled days became blurred and soft around the edges…kind of like stepping unexpectedly into the mist-muted morning light of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Maybe this was one of those thin places as well.

“Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.” – Celtic saying

AT Hike (Fox Creek to Damascus, VA) Day 4

Day 4 (June 28)

We awoke to overcast skies in a mist-shrouded forest. After a quick breakfast we broke camp and were back on the trail by 8:45 a.m.. 25 miles to Damascus. I’m not sure I can explain why but there’s little I enjoy more than walking through deep forests, cloaked in mist in the early morning hours. I was in my element. We walked in relative quiet, shaded by a canopy of birches, pines and fir trees. It was like walking through a fairy tale forest. Less than an hour in, with no warning, we stepped from our fairy tale forest into the mist-muted morning light and found ourselves breathing in the crisp, undiluted morning air of a grassy, mountaintop meadow. Words cannot come close to expressing the wonder of that moment. When we finally managed to stammer out a few syllables, they were only gasps and “Ohhhh,” and “I…I…ohhh.” I felt joy and freedom and gratitude like I haven’t since I was a little boy…and I wasn’t alone. Each of us simultaneously experienced the same exhilarating thrill of childlike freedom. It was a gift….from the Gifting Giver. We lingered and basked in the glow of the moment. Surely this is one of the thin places spoken of by the ancient Celts.

We reluctantly made our way down the trail to cross VA 600 (Whitetop Rd.) to a parking area where a huge group of hikers from a local church were resting after spending a week on the section of trail we were about to step onto. We dropped our packs, said our hellos and swapped stories. As the conversation reached a lull, I opened my guidebook to discover the magical place we had just encountered, as well as where we were now sitting was known as Elk Garden. From here the trail ascends 380 feet in 3.2 miles…in the rain, to Buzzard Rock. Well, maybe not always…but for us, it was raining. It actually started while I was precariously balanced on a rock in a creek trying to filter enough water to get us through lunch. I leapt from my perch, donned my rain gear and stretched my rain-cover over my pack with ninja like grace…right. Well, I got it done, anyhow. Buzzard Rock is an enormous boulder that juts out of the southwest side of Whitetop Mountain. I’m told it’s a great place to watch hawks spiraling up on thermals and a well-known stop on the AT. Most everyone who passes this way has their picture taken while standing on the outermost point of the projecting rock. We arrived to discover that another uber-large church group had taken up semi-permanent residence on the rock with no intention of moving. We dropped our packs and stretched out in the meadow at the base of the boulder while Dana doctored her mangled feet. We gazed down the trail ahead of us and noticed a hiker heading North, climbing the hill we were resting on. He looked to be in his sixties, military cut, stocky-build and calves like grapefruits. This guy was a hiker. He plopped down next to us and as we got to know one another he pointed to a spot on a mountain way off in the distance and said, “There’s my house right over there.” Apparently he lives locally and hikes this section several times a week…which explains the grapefruit. We realized we’d met his hiking buddy on our way up and around Whitetop. His friend started hiking South while he hiked North and they planned to swap vehicles and meet up down the mountain. Pretty good plan, actually.
We said goodbye, started our descent and realized the trail had become a narrow gash through a briar patch. It was literally 6″ wide and about a foot deep, covered in “ankle-breakers” (rocks about the size of a softball) some partially embedded, some loose. This was hands-down my least favorite part of the trail. Without the extra stability of my poles it was inevitable that I would fall…and I did. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the ground…the briars broke my fall. Well, I recovered virtually unscathed and carefully and slowly, painstakingly picked my way down the mountain.
We planned to camp at Lost Mountain Shelter which was 4.7 miles away but nearly all downhill. We had reached VA 601 (Beech Mountain Road) by 3:30 pm and were feeling pretty good about making it…until the sky suddenly turned dark. Not a good sign. Chester and Josiah were way out ahead and I had been laying back to make sure the girls didn’t get separated from the rest of us. At this point I figured it was time for a change of plans. I ran nearly a mile back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s hammock and then charged back up from whence I’d come. My plan, however flawed, was to make it to the shelter and put up both hammocks before the rain hit. Somehow, I pulled it off…just barely. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a spring shower. This was a thunder-boomer of epic proportions. I dropped my pack and barreled back down the trail, grabbed Dana’s pack (due to exhaustion and hamburger feet she was barely moving) and ran it back to the campsite. By the time she arrived at the site, emotions had worn thin and the weather wasn’t the only thing in turmoil. We ended up in an epic thunder-boomer of our own, yelling, screaming and crying. It was awful. Each time we tried to talk it out, it only got worse. We went to our separate corners: she to the shelter and I to the hammock. 20 minutes later, in the midst of the torrential rain, explosive thunder and crackling lightning, Dana left her warm, dry shelter to stand beneath my tarp while we worked past the raw emotions, found and offered forgiveness and resolve. Physically as well as emotionally spent, I drifted to sleep in the heart of the storm, at peace.